In November, Google officially announced their “Mobile-First Indexing” update. It’s no secret that Google has long been skewing favorably towards mobile users. Previous algorithm updates have penalised sites that don’t have mobile or responsive sites, and this new update will only continue to put mobile users as Google’s top priority. Since 75% of U.S. internet users are expected to access the web via mobile device this year, the mobile-first update should really come as no surprise.

So, what exactly does Google mean by “Mobile-First Indexing?”

Indexing refers to the way that Google bots crawl different websites to determine a ranking based on content, metadata, and a whole host of other signals. Currently, the Google index operates on a desktop-first basis. That means that the Google search bots are sent primarily to desktop sites, and proceed to collect data and rank those sites based on the desktop version. Sites are awarded for having a mobile responsive design, or a mobile version of their site, but in the current index, mobile sites are not indexed to determine ranking.

When the new update completely rolls out, Google will change that indexing system to put mobile sites first. So, instead of sending bots to crawl the desktop version of a website, Google will search, analyze, and collect data from mobile websites. Then, a site will be ranked on the data collected from the mobile site, rather than the desktop version.

Why the index change?

As Google mentioned in their official statement about the update, the problem with the desktop indexing system that currently exists is that it “can cause issues when the mobile page has less content than the desktop page because our algorithms are not evaluating the actual page that is seen by a mobile searcher.”

As always, Google is working to ensure the best user experience possible. Basically, Google recognizes that mobile and desktop versions of the same website do not always host the same content. They don’t want to direct mobile users to a site where a desktop version has the information they’re looking for, if the mobile version does not.

We’ve all clicked on a link on our phones that takes us to an abbreviated mobile site. In most cases, we realize the information we were looking for isn’t actually there, and have to navigate to the desktop version on our phones, or wait until we get home and can access the site through our laptop. Not very efficient, and kind of frustrating, right? Well, correcting that issue is the whole point of this new indexing update.

What does this mean for my site?

Well, it depends on your website. No two websites are exactly the same, which means depending on how your website is built, you’ll have to approach the update in different ways:

If your site is the same across all platforms:

You probably won’t need to change much. If you have a responsive website, your content should be the same across mobile, tablet, and desktop versions, which means as long as you’re happy with your website, feel free to keep it exactly the same.

If you have a dynamic website and your mobile and desktop versions have identical content, the same thing applies. The point of this update is to have the most accurate, relevant content that you would normally include on your desktop site on your mobile site as well. So, if you’ve got all the content on your mobile site, you’re good to go.

If your site is different across desktop and mobile platforms:

You’re probably going to have to make some changes. First, you’ll want to identify the differences between your desktop and mobile sites. If your existing site tends to favor the desktop user with additional content and keywords, you’ll likely experience a bump down in rankings if you don’t make a few changes. What steps can you take to avoid that?

  • Ensure that the content between both desktop and mobile sites is balanced.
    Obviously, the easiest fix is to ensure that everything that’s on your desktop site is also on your mobile site. This is most important for those with an “m.” site. Realize that Google is only going to be analyzing the content on your mobile site, so if that’s missing information relevant to your site viewers, you’re likely to see decreases in both ranking and tracking as the update continues to roll out.
  • Implement Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)
    It should come as no surprise to you that Google loves quick page speed. If your page speed is already great, this might not be necessary, but do note that Google will now be analyzing your mobile page speed, rather than your desktop page speed. AMPs work to boost your mobile pages in the eyes of the Google algorithm by increasing overall performance, mobile friendliness, and most importantly, page speed. If you’re not sure how to implement them, check out this easy to follow “how-to” blog post.
  • Never launch a mobile site until it is complete
    If you’re working on your mobile site in light of this new update, that’s great! But it’s in your best interest to wait to launch it until it’s completely finished. It’s better to have a complete, well put together desktop site and no mobile site than it is to have a live half-finished mobile site. Google will rank your finished desktop site if that’s all you’ve got, which means you’ll still have decent rankings. If you have a partially constructed mobile site though, that’s what Google will rank over your finished desktop version, which will knock down your rankings. So just wait until that new and improved mobile site is totally done before you let the public see it!

What if I don’t have a mobile site?

Say you only have a desktop version. Don’t worry that your site will become invisible to Google search bots, because it won’t. Google assured desktop-only sites that bots will continue to analyze and crawl desktop sites if that is the only version of the site that exists. You will likely experience some decrease in ranking and site traffic, due to the fact that Google does prefer mobile sites, but you won’t become invisible. If you’d like to boost your rankings, your best bet will be to work on creating that responsive web design or mobile site, but check out these 7 ways to avoid any further Google penalties in the meantime.

Is there anything else I need to know?

In a nutshell, the Google Mobile-First Indexing update is just another step toward providing ultimate user experience to the great majority of web browsers. A few extraneous things to keep in mind about the update include:

  • Canonical Tags
    These will stay the same throughout the new algorithm rollout. Canonical tags will continue to direct users to the content they need to get to, and you won’t need to worry about changing or updating them.
  • User Experience Design Tactics
    There’s been some controversy about the effectiveness of design techniques like dropdown, accordion, or hidden tabs that offer site viewers more content if they choose. It’s true that Google didn’t love these tactics on desktop sites, but that’s not the same for mobile sites. When it comes to mobile, dropdown and content expansion techniques are seen by Google as helpful ways to contribute to user experience. All of that content will carry full weight, and will be indexed and analyzed by Google bots in the new indexing system.
  • There will be only one Google site index
    Some people are concerned that there will be two site indexes, one for desktop and one for mobile. This is not true. Following the completion of this rollout, there will be one Google site index, and it will be structured to rank mobile sites ahead of others.

When should I expect this update to start?

Like many previous algorithm changes and updates, Google plans to roll out this new index gradually. They’ve likely already begun testing the new index with a few users. Once Google is happy with the user experience there, it will expand the update gradually and continue making tweaks until they are satisfied with the results. We predict that the update will be fully implemented worldwide sometime early this year.

If you have more questions about the Google Mobile-First Index update, feel free to comment below, or send us an email! We’d be happy to help you out, or answer any questions you have about updating your site to fit the new index.